Maximizer, the Uber Perfectionist

Perfectionists, rejoice.  There is someone even more out there than you.  It is the maximizers.  Maximizers differ from perfectionists in that the former believe they deserve the best of everything and can actually get it, whereas the latter knows that the goal is not realistic.  Maximizers operate on the belief that to be the best, you must have the best.  Do you know a maximizer?  Are you one?

Though maximizers are known to make better objective decisions, they are usually still unhappy with the outcome because of second guessing and self-doubt.   I’ve known a couple of maximizers in my life, and they’re great to work with, hard to live with.  You just know they will do an amazing job and get the job done.  They make better choices than the rest of us.  The down side is that they will do this amazing job, no matter what the cost.   They will tend to be unhappier with the outcome, even if it surpasses the results that others might achieve.  This need, this drive, seems to be something that is difficult for them to let go of, and they are often dragging the whole family into their obsession and then their dissatisfaction when it doesn’t turn out as well as expected.

Clifton StrengthsFinders identifies this as a strength.  Being absolutely committed to producing the best possible product is a real and marketable talent.   The CSF maximizer also helps the people in their lives be the best they can be.  This type of maximize makes great advisors, mentors and bosses.

All strengths have a downside if not managed properly, and maximizer is no exception.  All of you who are perfectionists or love a perfectionist know how hard they are on themselves.  Magnify x10 with a maximizer.  To cultivate peace of mind, satisfaction with outcomes, and familial harmony, maximizers need to learn to be satisfied with mere excellence.   In other words, they should cultivate their inner “satisficer.”  Satisficers are content and satisfied with excellence, and are better at bouncing back after a set back.  Satisficing is good for happiness and well-being.

Here are some strategies from Barry Schwartz (The Paradox of Choice) to become more satisficing:

  • Choose when to choose – Review how you made decisions (steps and how you felt during each step), study the outcome.  This strategy helps to determine the cost of how you make choices.
  • Choose, don’t pick – Decrease deliberation time, then reflect on what you want in the areas of life where decisions matter.  If none of the options meets your needs than think of better options.
  • Satisfice more and maximize less – Decide where “good enough” works;  scrutizine how you choose in those areas, then apply the strategy more broadly
  • Think about opportunity costs of opportunity costs – Stick with your choice unless you’re really unhappy; don’t be tempted by new and improved; don’t worry you’ll miss out.
  • Make decisions irreversible.
  • Practice gratitude for what you have.
  • Regret less – Alter standards to a satisficer, reduce the number of options, practice gratitude.
  • Anticipate adaptation – We get used to the nicer stuff and get immune to it and want more.  Adaptation feeds your maximize tendencies so prepare for this to occur.

My philosophy is a little simpler:  Apply maximizer ruthlessly to your life balance.  Create an image of what the perfect balance looks like and put it somewhere prominent.  Imagine how your life will be if you had the best possible balance!  Then go execute it in that awesome maximizer way.  Even settling for an excellent balance would be pretty darn amazing.

All:  Don’t forget to send me questions or topics you’d like for me to discuss.  Go either to this blog or to the Talk to Susanna link on the left.  Thanks!  Look forward to hearing from you!

A Question and Answer Experiment

Hard to believe it’s been almost a year and 156 posts since I’ve started blogging last November.  I started this blog because I believe I have a message to share that is helpful to others.  After engaging in another really rewarding and productive “I need a new perspective” conversation with a friend, I realized that writing down these ideas and sharing them could be useful to others.

Blogging has taken a somewhat new turn as I’ve started my graduate program in positive psychology as I’m using more academic, rather than personal material.  I can always relate the academic content to personal experience –that’s what makes it so meaningful to me – but it also feels a bit more cerebral than I’d like.

So I would like to turn this blog back to the readers… what would you like to hear about?  What questions do you have?  Do you have an issue you’d like me to discuss from a Silver Lining/positive psychology perspective?  What kinds of things do you struggle with?

I don’t really have answers to anyone’s questions.  Likely I’ll take a life coaching approach and rather try to find the right questions to ask you (I’ve been training as a life coach lately too, not to mention Clifton StrengthsFinders and Arbinger Institute coach), but toss in a few pearls of wisdom that I’ve collected over the years.

Life, in the end, is a journey where we all travel together.  On one path, I may be farther along than you, but you’re farther along than me on another path.  But if we share what we learn as we navigate through life, we can help each other have a more fulfilling and rewarding journey.  Thanks to all of you who have traveled with me this past year.  Now, perhaps we can find new tools and a more interesting route!

If you have a question or topic request, please email me at

Minding Your Relationship

No one ever told me why marriage is so much work.  My interpretation of that had more to do with diapers, laundry, yard work, house cleaning, cooking dinner and the like.  No folks, that’s the easy part.

The hard part is managing the relationship.

Sure, some folks are just so easy-going that almost anything goes and they’re cool with that.   In my opinion, they’re never 100% cool with everything their partner does, but for some couples, they’re like 90% cool and that’s good enough.  Perhaps that’s the model we should strive for.

Until we get there, it’s work.  Hard work.  I’ve written before about that dynamic of choosing a mate then having to live with the consequences. Given that this is the cycle we inevitably and initially eagerly enter into, we spend much of our time (after the romance has faded) living with the consequences.  There is much we can learn from positive psychologists about how to cultivate that relationship to create satisfaction and intimacy so that it survives and thrives post-romance.

Harvey and Pauwels calls this “minding” the relationship.  We should “mind” relationships because we may have habits in the relationship that are unknowingly damaging to the relationship, such as not appreciating what the other needs, taking others for granted, or inability to see the impact of our behavior on others.  The term “minding” does relate to a philosophy of mindfulness and being present and thus able to adapt to a given situation.  Couples that successfully mind their relationship have a high degree of closeness and contribute to the other’s goals and hopes in life.

Harvey and Pauwels describe the components of  relationship minding:

  • Knowing and Being Known – This does not mean more communication; rather it refers to communication with the aim of having a better understanding of the other.  For most of us, that means more listening.
  • Attributing – Explaining positive behaviors as personality or character (as opposed to a freak of nature) and negative behaviors as circumstantial and temporary (as opposed to a character flaw).
  • Acceptance and Respect – for the other, not only in terms of who they are, but for their values, opinions, and feelings, even during conflict.   Ability to forgive is high among couples who mind effectively.
  • Reciprocity – Equal sharing of effort and benefits to the relationship.
  • Continuity –  Continuation of the strong, close bond between the individuals, even as the individuals evolve and change over time.

The authors also share some minding behaviors to help us make these concepts a reality. These behaviors include affection, respect, support and assistance, shared quality time, and appreciation.   It seems to me that investing in any relationship in these ways is likely to improve the quality of that bond.   Is one of your relationships lacking any of these ingredients?  Go fill that void and see what happens!


Source:   Harvey, J.H. & Pauwels, B.G.  (2009). Relationship connection:  A redux on the role of minding and the quality of feeling special in the enhancement of closeness.  In S.J. Lopez, & C.R. Snyder (Eds.),  Oxford handbook of positive psychology (2nd ed.) (pp. 385-392).  New York: Oxford University Press.


A New Definition of Love

What if we’ve been thinking about love too narrowly?   What if love can actually be obtained anywhere and from almost anybody?

OK, I guess we could argue about semantics and our definitions of love.    But at least one definition of love by positive psychology researcher Barbara Frederickson, in her book Love 2.0, shows us how we can increase our capacity for and availability of love whenever we want.   Her definition of love has to do with positivity resonance (PR).  PR occurs between two people when they form a connection.  That connection consists of eye contact or touch, and a shared positive emotion.  When that connection occurs, then our brain waves and hormone release aligns with the other, thus reinforcing the connection and the resonance.  Generally, a feeling of safety is a prerequisite for PR to occur.

Let’s assume for now that this definition of love is a reasonable working hypothesis.  Therefore, love of this nature is available and abundant all around us.  These connections are available from strangers, acquaintances and loved ones alike.  We just simply need to make the time (a moment or two) and the effort to form a connection with someone else.    Have you ever saw something amusing, and happened to catch a stranger’s eye just as they noticed the same thing?  Have you ever made eye contact with a stranger in passing and caught a glimpse of their humanity in that second or two you contained their gaze?  How many times has a moment of mutual affection or admiration passed between you and a colleague or classmate?  These are all examples of PR with people we “don’t love” according to traditional definitions.  If we wish to increase the love in our lives, we can easily cultivate this kind of love throughout our day.

PR occurs the same way with loved ones as strangers, but there is an added level of safety, trust, and history with a loved one.  The PR intensity and frequency will be elevated with loved ones.  We can also cultivate PR with our loved ones by intentionally improving PR.  For example, shared or mirrored movements (such as dancing or other synchronous activity) improves PR, as does constructive positive communication and expressions of appreciation.  So, explore something new, mirror your loved one’s body language, respond enthusiastically and positively to your partner’s good news, and express your appreciation for each other.   Want to improve your ability to positively resonate?  Practice a little loving-kindness meditation every day.  This exercise has been shown to increase the tone of the vagal nerve and the amount of positive emotion in one’s life.

Even if you don’t buy this definition of love, PR is worth doing.  The more positive emotion and/or PR you experience, the broader your awareness and creativity, the better your health and IQ, the better your access to your wisdom, and the more resilient you will be.  The recipient of your PR will also enjoy these improved qualities, so what better way to pay it forward?

Increase Pleasure (Without Using Drugs)

Flourishing consists of both “feeling good” and “doing good.”  Learning more about pleasure, or “feeling good” can therefore help us thrive.  In other words, feeling good is, well, good for you!

A Yale University researcher, Paul Bloom, has a theory of about pleasure based on the principle of essentialism.  Essentialism refers to the fundamental nature of an object which determines its value to each person.   Essentialism is believed to be an adaptive mechanism that has allowed humans to quickly categorize objects as valuable or dangerous.   We quickly and early in life learn which stimuli will give us pleasure (a ripe peach, an attractive mate) or which we should avoid (a rotting carcass, sex with a family member), though some of life’s other pleasures may not necessarily enhance our survival (looking at a beautiful painting, drinking a fine glass of wine).

So, here are certain principles regarding pleasure and how you can increase your pleasure intentionally (note: these should all be done within your lifestyle and budget!):

  • Status items – designer and name brands, luxury items and indulgences signal that we have a certain desirability by association with status objects.  Even choosing something small like bottled water (arguably not one of life’s necessities) can be a status symbol and bring pleasure.  You don’t have to own such status items; experiencing the work of a master (artist, musician) also will bring pleasure.
  • See or touch awe-inspiring celebrities or public figures – other people’s “magic” can make you feel special as well.  Did you know you can see Galileo’s finger in a bell jar in a museum in Florence, Italy?
  • Food – seek out the food that you believe will bring you pleasure.  Because you’re right.  It will.   Chocolate always does the trick for me.
  • Attire – dress in a way that shows your value to others.  Yes, it can be worth the effort sometimes.
  • Mate – find an attractive and desirable matee.  Even better if that person has “status” or is someone you love (OK, that’s in the DUH category)
  • Make a choice – Simply choosing an item or having it given as a gift increases its value to the owner.   Second guessing yourself decreases pleasure, so avoid that behavior if you can.  Actually, having too many choices decreases pleasure so avoid those stores with 1000 choices of a single item.
  • Keep things – the longer you keep something, the more valuable it is to you over time, and thus the more pleasure it will bring.  This is especially true for sentimental objects, so keep those safe and visit them on occasion for an enjoyable trip down memory lane.  I have an unworn suit that has been in my closet for so long it must be worth a fortune by now.
  • Exert yourself for something worthwhile– the more effort you put into any of the above, the more you will enjoy and appreciate it.  For example, if you worked hard to get that hot mate or fancy car, you’ll enjoy them more than if they just fell into your lap, so to speak.  If you use your talents/strengths to accomplish the task, and the more meaningful the task, the more you’ll enjoy the process and the outcome.  This is the “do good” part of thriving.  So, help the little old lady across the street and make sure you put a lot of effort into it!
  • Savor the good memories and good stuff – when choosing how to interpret an event, choose a favorable, positive interpretation over a negative one (yes, it is a choice).  Savor the positive emotions from that experience by taking a trip down memory lane or telling the story to an appreciative audience.   Focus on the highlights or the best parts of the memory and imagine in detail what it was like in those best moments.

In conclusion, the essentialism theory for pleasure reveals how to maximize our pleasure out of the every day objects and people in our lives.  The pleasure can be related to simply owning, touching, seeing or eating something, or can be taken a step further by using effort to obtain or accomplish something.  The latter can  be further enhanced by using one’s strengths to accomplish a meaningful task.  You can use these principles to proactively plan a great day for yourself.  Enjoy!

Source:  Paul Bloom, How Pleasure Works, 2010, WW Norton & Co, New York.

A Perfect Balance of Talent and Virtue?

We all want to have talent and virtue in abundance.   Aristotle believed that happiness is not possible without excellence or virtue.  So give me talent and virtue.  Lots of it.   But is it possible to have or overuse talent and virtue to where they become a bad thing?

Aristotle also believed that virtues such as courage and temperance are best when exercised in balance.  Too much courage, he says, makes someone rash and belligerent.   Too much modesty can make someone shy.  Extremes of virtue (too much or too little) then become a vice.   Instead, Aristotle contends, that we should use reason to exercise our virtues like Goldilocks does: “just right” (he didn’t quite say it that way).

Similarly, the Clifton StrengthsFinder identifies the top 34 strengths that people use to be successful.  We can think about our strengths as either being in the “balcony” or the “basement”.    The former refers to optimal use of our strength, the latter when we are using our strength ineffectively or even counterproductively.  For example, my Input strength gets in my way when I start asking too many questions.   I need the data.  The 411.   This can be disruptive, annoying and intrusive when I’m in the basement with it, but I can also be a glorious source of useful information when my Input is exercised correctly.

Again, I would contend that reason, or I would call it wisdom, is what separates the basement from the balcony, the virtue from the vice.    The right balance is circumstance-dependent, so the same formula doesn’t work in every situation.  Wisdom and experience allows us to find that sweet spot as much as possible. But since every situation is different, we’re unlikely to hit it every time.  Or are we?

Let’s suppose for a moment that all  the talents and virtues are identifiable and quantifiable and that there are 100 of them.  I have all 100 and I use them all the time in just the right manner.  In other words, I’m perfect.

Yeah, right.

I know some of you think that you’re pretty darn close to that, or should be.  I know that because I used to be that way too.  This is perfectionism, and the need for perfectionism is the opposite of acceptance.   Acceptance is an important virtue and as humans our reality is that perfection is neither possible nor desirable.  First, perfection leaves no room for growth or improvement.  By definition, that’s stagnation.  What’s perfect about that? Second, stagnation and the smugness that often accompanies people who think they’re perfect is downright unappealing.  .  Third, everyone has a different interpretation of reality, and so even if you’re objectively “perfect,” someone will disagree.    Finally, the tendency to believe one is perfect will prevent one from actually seeing where a fix is needed.  So, which is more likely to be closer to perfect, something that is never improved upon, or something that undergoes continual improvement?  It’s ironic, then, that belief in perfectionism actually encourages the opposite.

This is the folly of human nature.  It takes wisdom to recognize and learn from it, forgiveness to feel OK about it, and humor to laugh at it.   This is how we thrive.

An Exercise in Serenity

My recent homework assignment was to pick a positive emotion and create a portfolio to help me cultivate that emotion.  I chose serenity since I have recently learned that I’m a ruminator – I “chew on” and worry about things past the point of usefulness.  I want to improve my serenity during times of stress.

The portfolio requires that you compile poems, songs, images, things, ideas, mementos, whatever that brings you this positive emotion.  You are to spend a little time every day for a week to create the portfolio, then use your portfolio every day for another week to try to build that emotion.

Here is a sample of what I put in my portolio:


Serenity Prayer

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.



Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.”
― Lao Tzu

“There are two ways to get enough. One is to continue to accumulate more and more. The other is to desire less.”
― G.K. Chesterton

“We are not going to change the whole world, but we can change ourselves and feel free as birds. We can be serene even in the midst of calamities and, by our serenity, make others more tranquil. Serenity is contagious. If we smile at someone, he or she will smile back. And a smile costs nothing. We should plague everyone with joy. If we are to die in a minute, why not die happily, laughing? (136-137)”
― Swami SatchidanandaThe Yoga Sutras

“Change what cannot be accepted and accept what cannot be changed.”
― Reinhold Niebuhr

Chris river

Pure Moods/new age music

Sound of my water or wind chimes

Sound of my dogs’ breath while sleeping

Sound of ocean or river



The river

The beach

My living room with dogs

Couch with my sweetie


Hot bubble bath

Swimming in or walking by the ocean or river

Sitting down and waiting for cookies to come out of the oven

Seeing my family around the dining room table

Waking up from a nap on a quiet afternoon

Sitting outside and smelling the fresh air
Meditation or playing piano


The Five Promises

Power of Now and anything Eckhart Tolle

serenity 2

I learned that simply putting together the portfolio created serenity in me, and the exercise itself made me more aware of how I was feeling at the moment.  I tried to be intentional about noting when I was feeling serene and when I was not.  I have already been in the habit of retreating to the bathtub to relax and center myself, but I have also been much more proactive about noticing and savoring the things that do bring me peace.   As a result, I believe I’m on a much more even keel then I was before I started the exercise.

The real test is when I get on the phone with an obstructive customer service representative.  Wish me luck!


Morality: Relative or Absolute?

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s ethics debacle may be more than an embarrassment.  His actions may be criminal and he could be facing jail time.

The once vice-presidential contender has gone from popular opinion riches to rags as the extent of his lucrative relationship with Star Scientific president Jonnie Williams has come to light over the last few months.  The issue is whether McDonnell broke any ethical rules or laws by trading promotion of Star Scientific ‘s new product for lavish gifts and “loans”.

The response from the public predictably fell along party lines.   Liberals have used this incident to point out the unapologetic greed of the top 2% and corruption of our elected officials.  Conservatives claim this is trumped up indignation – after all, McDonnell broke no laws.    How can there be such polar opposite reaction from a group of relatively homogeneous (mostly white, Christian, American, east coast-living) constituents?  Does one group lack a moral compass?  Is the other in denial?

According to Pinker (2008) , different cultural groups have approximately the same set of moral values:  harm, fairness, community/group loyalty, authority and purity.  Differences in morality tend to result from variation in interpretation and priority of these values.  Therefore, in this example, liberals may have priorities of moral fairness and perhaps an overriding belief in loyalty to the public (community) over business (group).  In contrast, a conservative’s moral compass may prioritize loyalty to the business community over the public.  Further, conservatives may argue that the Governor is a special person (authority) and deserves special privileges within limits (which were not violated here, according to them).  Both groups likely believe that their respective moral rules are universal and rule-breakers should be punished (Bloom, 2011).

Virginian, like everyone else, arrive at moral decisions based on unconscious moral principles, an intuition that guides our moral reasoning (Bloom, 2011).  But we pretty much have opinions based on our gut reactions, which are influenced by our belief systems,  and then back-justify them with “logic.”   We also tend to only pay attention to things that are value to us – in this case, perhaps justifying our gut feelings.

Who’s right?  Who’s wrong?  Both groups are basing their opinions based on their own interpretation of their moral priorities.  Pointing out each other’s hypocrisy just highlights our own.  Perhaps understanding this premise can improve the quality of much-needed discourse.   Viva la difference!



Bloom, P. (2011).  Family, community, trolley problems, and the crisis in moral psychology.  Yale Review, 99(2), 26-43.

Pinker, S. (2008).  The moral instinct.  New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from

The Gift of Listening


Talking is over-rated.  Like most things in life, I’ve discovered I have taken the role of listener for granted.  And probably like most people, I thought I was an above-average listener (note: most people think they’re above average, which of course means some people are wrong).    But listening with undivided attention is an amazing gift we can give to the speaker.   A good listener can make the speaker feel heard, appreciated, understood and valued.

Active listening is not easy, especially if our internal world is not organized for it.  Listeners often spend much of the time thinking about what they’re going to say next, how they feel about what they are being told, getting distracted by other unrelated thoughts, or trying to solve the problem of the speaker.

We listeners also interpret what we hear through our own biases and filters. For example, someone might tell me that they go to the bar to relax and I might think that this person may have a drinking problem.  For them it may be more social, seeing their friends, or watching sports on a big screen.    I shouldn’t assume I understand what they mean when they say “bar” even.  My first image was a seedy den of iniquity, but an Appleby’s is a bar too.  Or someone might have even said “barre” and is a dancer.  How is a person to know?   Ask, duh.

That’s my point.  We don’t know what it’s like for someone else. So we shouldn’t assume.

A good listener is actively engaged in the listening.  Just sitting and doing nothing does not make the speaker feel heard (think: blank expression, looking elsewhere, saying nothing).  Eye contact, little nods of the head, little affirmative sounds, an appropriate question or supportive statement sprinkled through the conversation conveys your engagement to the speaker.

Most people know this and do this automatically.  But here are some mistakes that many listeners make:

  • Jumping to conclusions – you really don’t know what it’s like to be the speaker, so don’t assume anything about them or what their words mean.  If there’s ambiguity, ask.
  • Judging – disengaging or becoming closed in the conversation because of a judgment about what was said.
  • Teaching – offering advice or an opinion when  speakers can really find their own solution.  Speakers will often feel better just being able to talk, and your curiosity about them may help them find their inner wisdom.
  • Interrupting – changing the focus of the conversation to self, instead of keeping it on the listener.  Going into teaching or problem-solver mode effectively is changing the focus to the listener.  Also, listeners may think the speaker is done with their story or thought and then jump in prematurely.  Asking “is there anything else?” is a good way to make sure they’re done speaking.
  • Supportive listening – a good listener will help the speaker savor the positive emotions and accomplishments by focusing on the best and most affirming parts of the story.

Most people are not prepared to do this level of listening  on a daily basis, myself included.   It takes a lot of effort to be totally in their world and out of ours.   I’m also not saying that we have to do this every time we converse with someone.  But consider how it would feel to a friend, loved one, coworker or even stranger for us to give them that gift.  What if the speaker is afraid?  Angry?  Hurt?  Disappointed?  Sad?  Consider how they’d feel after a conversation where we’re actively listening, versus if we are mainly interested in being heard?  Perhaps we don’t have to employ this level of listening with every conversation, but maybe after increasing our self-awareness  we might decide we want to increase our overall active listening a little bit with all our conversations.  We might be surprised what we learn when we stop and really listen to others.

Optimism, Over-Rated

I love self-assessments.  Until I don’t like the results.

You know how it goes.  You go digging deep into your psyche, and you know you’re going to confirm what you already know about yourself.  And then it’s the exact opposite.  And in an area that you’re pretty sure about.

When I was a kid, my sister always accused me of being a starry-eyed idealist.  I don’t think she meant it as a compliment, but that’s how I took it.  I always would’ve rather to be optimistic and see the silver lining and the good in every person and situation.  I even started a  blog with this theme.

Imagine my dismay when I took’s optimism test and I came out to be a pessimist.  Seriously???  And my test for positive emotions (PANAS) indicated that I am in the mere 65-72nd percentile for positivity and 46-53rd for negativity.

If I didn’t know that these tests were rigorously developed and tested, I might’ve dismissed them as being inaccurate.   So instead I contemplate the results.  In the optimism test, I scored high on the hope part of the test, but poor on the internal/external portion.  In other words, when things don’t go well, I look internally instead of externally for culpability.  Admittedly, not only do I look internally pretty much every time, but when I feel like I f**d up, I brood about it until I have figured out how to improve it next time around.  Sometimes I just drive myself nuts.

The point here is that those negative emotions of guilt and stress motivate me to improve.  If my emotions were 100% positive, what would be my incentive to change?  The same is true at the opposite extreme – 100% negative emotions would make me feel like “what’s the point?”  So maybe a somewhat positive PANAS score is conducive for growth.

Contrary to this somewhat intuitive assertion is Barbara Frederickson’s broaden and build theory (Positivity) which posits that positive emotions create an upward spiral starting with broadened awareness, exploration, expansive thinking, increased creativity and experiential learning.  So, given this theory, where is the sweet spot for negativity?  Are there any benefits to psychological discomfort?  Or, when it comes to positivity, is “more” better?